Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 9, 2021
Janis A. Tomlinson Goya: A Portrait of the Artist Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020. 448 pp.; 35 color ills.; 46 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780691192048)

Retratos, or portraits, come in different varieties in Spanish culture. There are, of course, portraits and self-portraits like the ones Francisco de Goya y Lucientes produced in abundance: visual representations of the subject—usually though not always human—created to commemorate individuals, to preserve likenesses for posterity, and to serve as models for emulation. These might be meticulous renderings of physical features and dress, idealized portrayals that flattered their subject, or perceptive reflections of the sitter’s mind and heart through a steely gaze, a furrowed brow, or an impish grin.

Early modern portraits identified as verdaderos retratos, or true portraits, assured viewers of their faithful renderings, frequently but not always in the cause of beatification and canonization. Spanish art theorist Francisco Pacheco advised in Arte de la pintura (1649) that these were best drawn from life or from credible portraits made during the sitter’s lifetime. Yet the subjects of verdaderos retratos were not always human, as the term was commonly used for representations of miracle-working holy images. Part of an artistic genealogy stretching from Deus pictor as the creator of humankind in his own image through the Veronica Veil, Saint Luke’s portrait of the Virgin Mary, and verdaderos retratos of deceased saints, these paintings and prints pictured sculpted Madonnas or Christs on pedestals or performing their miraculous acts in the world. The label assured viewers that the image captured the true likeness and thus something of the sacred presence and authority of the miraculous subject. This type of verdadero retrato assumed the burden of spreading cults, and some printed examples even became tertiary relics thanks to inscriptions confirming that they had been touched to their originals.

Finally, the retrato hablado, or spoken portrait, is a verbal description of the sitter. Today the term is used in Latin America for forensic drawings or police sketches made from witness testimony. The description’s precision in this case is essential for the retrato hablado’s success: the more descriptive, the closer to the likeness, at least as the witness recalls it. Looking more broadly within the historical record, the retrato hablado was a biographical sketch or portrait drawn from diaries, writings, wills, inventories, contracts, newspaper accounts, and so on. In lieu of or in addition to visual records, these texts rounded out or, perhaps better said, incarnated the subject, bringing them to life for the reader.

Written by Janis A. Tomlinson, the preeminent scholar of the art of Francisco de Goya, Goya: A Portrait of the Artist is at once each type of portrait. The book is a commemoration and record through meticulous description and a perceptively rendered soul. It is the verdadero retrato drawn, as Pacheco recommended, from the most credible visual and textual sources from the artist’s life and legacy, giving the reader access to Goya’s remarkable, if not precisely miraculous, presence within his context. And it is the best example of the retrato hablado, bringing together a vast array of primary and secondary texts to craft the most authoritative biographical and artistic portrait of Goya written to date.

Facing art history’s ambivalence toward the genre, Tomlinson’s book is an unashamed biography and a standard against which artists’ biographies should be measured. It gracefully and compellingly draws out the scholarly value of this genre, conscious of biography’s historiography and methodological pitfalls, including its propensity to craft myths. Tomlinson’s portrait of Goya is not a story and undoes outdated myths of a brooding, dark figure. It offers instead a rigorously documented chronology of a man in full, rich in contextual detail while at the same time hugely rewarding in its work with images. The author assiduously avoids conjecture and characterization, rejecting imagined episodes of feverish work, temper tantrums, or depression and distinguishing, as she notes, “fact from inference” (xxvii). Rather, the book narrates the extant known record of Goya’s life within his environment, joining reliable data drawn from primary sources—including newly available records—and the vast secondary literature.

The contrast to other biographies of Goya is striking. For example, while Robert Hughes’s entertaining invention of Goya (Knopf, 2006) imagines that Josefa Bayeu’s general absence from her husband’s art indicated her “self-effacing loyalty” within the couple’s “ideal marriage” (39), Tomlinson analyzes the social and professional network of relatives, artists, and bureaucrats who witnessed Bayeu’s will. Similarly, what Hughes saw in Death of the Picador as Goya’s “fear of being no longer able to impose himself upon the world” (142) due to his deafness, and in the Tauromaquia as “part memoir and part fantasy” (363), Tomlinson analyzes through newspaper advertisements, art patronage following Ferdinand VII’s return from exile in 1814, and material evidence within the objects themselves. The former imagined a myth that closed down further inquiry by exceeding the realities of lived existence while the latter opens a door to history and the complicated humans that make it, inviting others to pursue each archival or visual lead.   

The examples of Bayeu’s will and the Tauromaquia illustrate the fact that Tomlinson’s book is not a popular biography and is intended for the serious reader interested in Goya, his art, and his era. It is, in many ways, as much a biography of Goya’s work as it is of the artist himself. That is, Tomlinson’s rich contextualization of each object she discusses offers a kind of contextual equivalent to close, slow looking at the object itself. To cite just one example, our understanding of Goya’s tapestry designs in the late 1770s is made fuller by the author’s description of his Madrid apartment at the time and the shops adjacent to it on calle del Desengaño, as well as of his failed petition to replace Anton Rafael Mengs (1728–1779) as court painter. Looking slowly around at Goya and his environment complements looking at the designs themselves. Throughout the book, we see Goya not as a heroic superhero but as a person within a specific context, engaging and interacting with his world. His works are here not the product of a frustrated, isolated genius but the efforts of an artist negotiating the complex world of patrons, academies, politics, and relationships.

Finally, it is important to note that Tomlinson called her work a portrait of Goya. As she notes in her introduction, the available information about Goya and his work has increased dramatically since 1992; surely more will emerge as scholars, including undoubtedly Tomlinson herself, pursue new lines of inquiry that emerge from this invaluable book. Until then, Goya: A Portrait of the Artist will sit secure in its position as the most complete, authoritative, and up-to-date retrato available.

Kelly Donahue-Wallace
Professor, Department of Art History, University of North Texas